The Resurrection of Sigmund Freud

by Greg Mackie

Source of material commented on: www.scientificamerican.com/article/freud-returns/

The author of A Course in Miracles had a high regard for Sigmund Freud. He discussed Freud at length with the Course’s scribes (both of whom were Freudian psychologists) in material that didn’t make it into the published Course. The Course itself shares Freud’s psychodynamic approach to the mind: an approach that sees the human psyche as a turbulent arena of conflicting drives, most of which are buried in the unconscious through various defense mechanisms. The Course’s thought system is starkly different from Freud’s in many respects-for instance, unlike Freud, the Course claims that the conflicts of the mind can be escaped through awakening to God-yet the similarities with Freud’s basic approach are apparent.

The Course was written in the 1960s, when Freud’s work was still considered foundational in the field of psychology. In subsequent years, however, many of his theories have fallen out of favor, which leads to the question: Is the psychology of A Course in Miracles out of date? A recent article in Scientific American Mind Magazine suggests that the answer is no. The article, entitled “Freud Returns,” reports that a number of brain studies have provided empirical evidence for some of Freud’s major theories: “Neuroscientists are finding that their biological descriptions of the brain may fit together best when integrated by psychological theories that Freud sketched a century ago.”

For example, a number of studies have confirmed the existence of unconscious mental processing, which supports Freud’s view that much of the motivation for our conscious behavior is unconscious. To cite one such study: In 1996, neuroscientists at New York University discovered a brain pathway connecting perceptions with the parts of the brain that produce fear. This pathway generates memories of fearful events, yet because it has no contact with the parts of the brain that generate conscious memories, the memories it produces are unconscious. Yet they still influence the conscious mind. When current events trigger these unconscious memories of fearful past events, they produce conscious feelings that seem to have no rational basis, such as (to use the example from the article), “Men with beards make me uneasy.” Material from the unconscious is thus the real source of a feeling which will, of course, motivate conscious behavior-just as Freud claimed.

Other studies have confirmed the existence of repression, the Freudian defense mechanism that keeps so many of our motivations unconscious. A famous example is a 1994 UC San Diego study of “anosognosics”-people who, because of damage to a specific part of their brains, are unaware of major disabilities such as the paralysis of a limb. One woman in the study, who was unaware that her left arm had been paralyzed by a stroke eight days earlier, had this part of her brain artificially re-activated. In an interview that followed, she indicated that she recognized that her left arm was paralyzed and had been for eight days. Clearly, even though she had been consciously unaware of her paralysis during those eight days, some unconscious aspect of her brain was aware.

What’s really interesting, though, is what happened when the re-activation wore off. She not only forgot once again that her arm was paralyzed, but she also forgot the part of the interview where she said her arm was paralyzed, even though she remembered the rest of the interview quite well. She must have repressed her memory of that part of the interview, so that her memory would be consistent with the “fact” that her arm was not paralyzed. The researcher who conducted this study (Ramachandran) concluded that “memories can indeed be selectively repressed….Seeing [this patient] convinced me, for the first time, of the reality of the repression phenomena that form the cornerstone of classical psychoanalytical theory.”

Not everyone is convinced that these results and others like them vindicate Freud. However, his ideas are enjoying a renaissance, due to what looks like neurological evidence for his basic picture of the mind, a mind whose conscious experience is a deceptive mask covering the vast realm of the unconscious. And if these experiments really are confirming Freud, they are also confirming basic components of the psychology of A Course in Miracles.

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